Imperative national need Investment for business sector The Supreme Court on April 18, 2019 ordered six ministries, their secretaries, and three Government authorities, to take immediate measures to enforce in the design and construction of all new buildings the public would use, features that would make them easy to use by persons with restricted mobility. [...]

Sunday Times 2

Implementing accessibility in public spaces


  • Imperative national need
  • Investment for business sector

The Supreme Court on April 18, 2019 ordered six ministries, their secretaries, and three Government authorities, to take immediate measures to enforce in the design and construction of all new buildings the public would use, features that would make them easy to use by persons with restricted mobility. This is as defined in Clause 10 of a comprehensive set of Gazetted Accessibility Regulations No: 1 of 2006 unanimously approved by Parliament on March 20, 2007.

Accessibility in public spaces can be real game changers (Atta Kenare/AFP)

The SC declared that compliance is mandatory to arrest grave social and economic problems, which include marginalisation of people, unwanted dependency, denial of productive opportunities and enjoyment of fundamental right, etc.

This landmark judgement given under reference SCFR 273/2018 was recognised by the SC as a very significant achievement as this writer/the petitioner – since 2009, appearing at all times in person on a wheelchair – successfully pursued single-handed such public-interest litigation, fundamental rights application concerning a national tragedy and of international importance to Sri Lanka.

A national crime!

Accessibility is an inherent right of everyone. It can empower all people. It cannot be negotiated or diluted by anyone under any circumstances. It forms the foundation of freedom, justice and dignity.

But still, in a 28-page judgement the SC clearly states: “Despite the passage of 13 years, there is large scale and substantial non-compliance of meaningful implementation of these Gazetted Accessibility Laws by the heads of state and owners of private sector institutions”.

“These include numerous new buildings people need daily, including several reputed hotels, shopping complexes, hospitals – toilets, washrooms, restaurants and counters in particular – and thereby pose numerous unwanted hardship and safety hazards to most clients/patients”.

At this time, over an estimated 20% of Sri Lanka’s population – ie 4 million people – have impediments to their physical mobility, stability, dexterity or eyesight.

They form the country’s largest minority, but, remain voiceless, often marginalised and a most vulnerable group.

This means one in every five people of Sri Lanka has to deal with limitations in ability in day-to-day living in an undesirable, built social environment explained above.

This includes those over 65 years (almost a sixth of our population), people living with debilitating medical conditions, those convalescing, those who use wheelchairs and sticks, and even the pregnant.

Every one of us is certain to spend some periods of our life living with curtailed ability. In reality, that description – people with dis-abilities, or rather, restricted ability – will apply to each and every one of us at some point in our lives. It may be others today, but, it icould be us or our loved ones tomorrow. Thus, why should man continue to spend money, effort and time in inhumanely constructing such physical barriers?

When ability is restricted, why should simple everyday activities become so… very complicated, unsafe and disastrous?

It is the way we design and build the environments we need to use in daily life that makes us able and thereby live life to its fullest with dignity and with safety.

Tormenting consequences:

(i)    Danger of injury and potential threats to safety of life

(ii)  Waste of productive human potential

(iii) Drive towards poverty

(iv) and as the SC concluded, “Denial of opportunity of equality and the protection assured by the provisions of this Act, and thereby continual violation of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by Article 12(1) and Article 14(1)(h) of the Constitution, to the Petitioner Dr Perera and others similarly circumstanced with restricted mobility”

(v)   The trauma of exclusion by built environments precipitate despair, depression, grief and phobia with the enhanced possibility of psychosomatic illnesses, potentially crippling precious human life – economically, socially and mentally

(vi) The long term mega-development projects are inextricably entwined with the future of generations of Sri Lankans. With this ongoing adverse trend the next generation of persons suffering from mobility impediments will face far worsening consequences

You will soon realise that the world around that once you knew to be cheerful and kind, is no more so, as you are often marginalised beyond expectations and become unnecessarily dependant on others.

From darkness to light

Making all parts of buildings and facilities that the public needs to access ‘enabling and safe for all’ is a low-cost, feasible, indispensable investment that makes good business sense.

For businesses to grow and achieve maximum potential, their customer base also needs to grow.

No company can afford to marginalise anybody who wants to do business with them, especially an ever-increasing pool of customers that includes those with restricted mobility. Not only do they form a significant proportion of the population, but they are often accompanied by able-bodied friends or family.

It’s good customer care to get top management commitment to make your business premises open equally to every potential customer.

Environments that are easily accessible to everyone equally will create a reputation no money can ever buy, as an organisation that cares for people. This is imperative to survive and succeed in today’s highly competitive business environment.

Yet, most businesses fail to recognise the importance of opening doors equally to all, and thereby continue to lose vast amounts of revenue due to dis-abling environments causing exclusion of a considerable customer base.

The tourism industry, in particular, is one example. Unoccupied rooms destroy revenue opportunity and kill a big part of in-house income earned through profit centres such as restaurants and room service. Hence, there is a strong financial incentive to make hotel and other facilities safe and accessible equally to everyone and thereby optimise room occupancy over all 12 months of the year. But recognition of this needs vision and leadership.

Popular cost-myth

Implementation of accessibility measures and SC orders for new buildings are not costly as 85% of work is just masonry. It requires no allocation of additional funds.

‘Constructing facilities that are accessible to all is costly and a non-essential expense’, is a total misconception.

Accessibility is not an add-on. If the ‘right measures are incorporated rightly at the design stage as an integral part of the development of the construction, the cost incurred will add less than 2% to the total cost of construction. The colossal waste to the country and life caused by the failures to implement SC orders, is huge compared to the money needed.

However, designing for inclusion requires a wide and thorough practical understanding of the intricacies involved. There cannot be any margin for error as it is a highly responsible task concerning human life.

As every building and site is unique in its access problems, each site must be assessed separately. Not to do that is a costly blunder we often see made even by giants in business.

As such, it is highly advisable that the key top decision makers should seek expert guidance – from the start– especially from those with proven competence and wide experience.

Main concerns

The SC further states: “The specific provisions of the Disability Rights Protection Act No: 28 of 1996 to punish the violators, although in force for 23 years, have never been used and thereby violators, still, continue to go free.”

No wonder violators continue to violate the law, and victimised parties – including the country – get severely punished, incurring losses that money cannot compensate.

The most effective, feasible way to arrest this national tragedy is by minimising the gap between the law and ground reality. The letter of the law needs to be turned – and turn faster – into reality.

The Attorney General – the 9th Respondent – is the principal legal officer of this country and the protector of the public rights of the public. We appeal to him to take the long-awaited speedy initiatives and set an example to others.

The immediate crucial task is to create awareness of these facts and appeal to socially responsible members of society, media, organisations and individuals to help. 

(The writer ( – a paraplegic since 1992 – is a professional, and a former senior manager in industry. Personal adversity has turned him an accessibility rights activist and an internationally-recognised, competent
advisor on Accessibility years of experience.)


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